On May 5th the state of Karnataka held elections to vote in a new state government. It was quite a significant affair with many street closures in the month long run up to election day to allow political rallies. Posters, and political slogans daubed on walls sprang up everywhere. Cars with loud speakers patrolled residential areas exhorting people to vote and at least one bomb exploded in Bangalore. Even worse, for three days around the vote sales of alcohol were banned across the state!
In the event, as widely tipped, the ruling BJP party was kicked out of office and Congress, the traditional ruling party in this part of India, resumed power.
Participation in Indian politics is relatively high in international terms. Turnout in the World’s Biggest Democracy is usually around 60% and is generally higher for state elections than for the distant national Parliament. Tip O’Neill coined the phrase that ‘all politics is local’. Well that is never truer anywhere than it is in India. People here vote with the expectation that the winning party will make good promises on delivering local infrastructure projects: roads, schools and water supply.
I met several people who were passionately involved and very partisan. The irony is that so few of the people I mix with socially seemed to care. It was easy to get drivers or waiters to discuss the forthcoming election, but the professional classes and the urban middle class genuinely seemed to have little interest or involvement.
The reason is that the rich in this country largely opt out of politics. They pay for private education and medical care, employ private security firms to police their gated compounds, and remain largely indifferent to corruption and inefficiency in state offices. Consequently they see no reason to pay tax. India has a shockingly low tax base. In December, India’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, announced that only about 36 million people filed income taxes last year. That’s 2.89 percent of the population. If it means that they have to drive their SUVs on rutted roads past piles of accumulated garbage and emaciated people dressed in rags sleeping on the verge, well so be it.
I do not profess any faith or religious beliefs. But I think it is not a coincidence that Christianity teaches charity and responsibility for ones fellow man, and European politics pretty much across the continent boils down to various flavours of social democracy. In the USA, where there is a tradition of philanthropic giving, they do it differently. Hinduism by contrast is essentially fatalistic and focuses on personal behaviour and the self. To my mind that attitude permeates much of Indian society and culture.
So what has any of this got to do with food or sustainability? Those are after all the purported subjects of this blog. Well yesterday, tucked away on the inside pages of the Times of India, I read a small article that said that the new Karnataka government was about to effect a change in policy to allow Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the state’s retail sector. This is yet another step in the long march towards economic liberalisation begun in 1991. However, many small producers and traders are deeply unhappy about the prospect of Karnataka’s retail industry being opened to foreign competition.
In the west the arguments for liberal economics are so dominant it seems strange to think that this could be such a contentious issue here. So complete is our belief in free trade, deregulation, competition and the power of market forces that we forget that alternatives do exist. Since the reforms were introduced foreign inwards investment in India has skyrocketed. Annual GDP growth has accelerated from just 1¼ % in the three decades after Independence to today’s 7½ %. The city where I am living, Bangalore, has become a global IT hub, and India sits proudly as a BRIC nation second only to China in the pace of economic development.
Yet, as elsewhere in the world, the fruits of economic development have not been shared equitably. Rising prosperity has been accompanied by a massive growth in inequality. There is a record number of super rich Indians but the lowest tiers of Indian society have been left behind. The reforms have brought virtually no change in incomes or average consumption for people at the bottom of the pile. Economic growth has not been translated into employment growth or a significant change in educational standards for the masses. Basic nutrition remains a fundamental concern for millions of the poor.
I enjoy food shopping in Bangalore. There are several small independent supermarkets where, by shopping around, I can buy pretty much everything I need. They are not stylish and choice is limited. The expat telegraph buzzes with news that such and such a place has got a delivery of French Brie or Danish butter. But most things are available if you know where to look. Certainly it’s a lot better than China in that regard.
It is also quite chastening to take a stroll in to the local village, Nagenahalli, and see how the locals live. I frequently visit a local green grocer. At first, the presence of a white face caused some consternation, but now they are used to me. For my part I have got over my fixation with perfectly formed vegetables and uniform, smooth skinned fruit. Here you get produce just as nature creates it, in all shapes and sizes and with blemishes. It doesn’t alter the taste one jot! Potatoes, garlic, onions, chilies, capsicums, bitter gourd and okra are always available. Cauliflowers, courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, carrots and string beans are usually to be had. After that? Well don’t hold your breath. It’s not that other things aren’t available, but they come and go as they should.
Agricultural produce is locally grown and available when in season. The mango season has just ended, but when they were available they were amazing.
Potentially FDI means that this time next year Nagenahalli could have a Wal-Mart, a Carrefour or a Tesco Express. I will be able to push my trolley around in luxurious airconditioned aisles groaning with wondrous, foreign imported foods. Perhaps this village will disappear under piles of superfluous packaging, local farmers will be driven out of business and my village shop will be demolished to make way for a hundred car parking lot. Perhaps that’s progress. No doubt there would be a tiny uptick in India’s GDP associated with the retail revolution in Nagenahalli.
Is it patronising and hypocritical of me to want to deny the pleasures of the first world to people here. Why should they be denied the right to buy South African apples or Dutch lettuces? And can anyone really hold back the tide of development anyway?
But here’s another irony. The people who would benefit from a retail revolution are the same middle classes who eschewed the elections. The poor people of Nagenahalli don’t want to buy taramasalata or Californian wines. They don’t need loyalty cards or two-for-one offers on shampoo. Most toiletries are sold here in single use sachets. I bet, if anybody were to ask them, they just want jobs, a community and somewhere to sell their meager farm produce. Now that would be worth voting for!